Priority Setting Threatens NextGen, Observers Fear

 - September 30, 2013, 12:02 PM
Aerospace Industries Association CEO Marion Blakey said that setting NextGen priorities is a concern. (Photo: Bill Carey)

Prominent aviation industry figures fear that a list of priorities developed to keep the NextGen ATC modernization effort on track during a time of funding pressure and ongoing “sequestration” budget cuts in the U.S. could undermine the ambitious, two-decade effort.

“As an old political hand in this town, I have to worry” that setting priorities “will be a vehicle to take things apart,” said Marion Blakey, Aerospace Industries Association president and CEO. Blakey served as FAA Administrator in 2003, when Congress codified the NextGen effort with the passage of the Vision 100-Century of Aviation Reauthorization Act. NextGen “is a system of systems, after all,” she said. “We really do have to make sure that things continue to track in a logical [way] and not start pushing things off the table.”

On September 19, the NextGen Advisory Committee (NAC) approved a tiered list of NextGen priorities “in light of budget pressures and possible sequestration impacts” affecting the FAA’s ability to continue the effort. Organized by standards organization RTCA and representing all segments of the aviation industry, the NAC serves as a federal advisory committee to the FAA, which generally follows its recommendations.

The committee’s priorities further refine the recommendations of an earlier iteration of the NAC, called Task Force 5, which met over seven months in 2009 and advanced a strategy to achieve NextGen “mid-term” benefits by 2018.

The NAC recommended that the FAA assign “Tier 1A” priority for capabilities deemed highly beneficial and ready: namely, performance-based navigation (PBN); closely spaced parallel operations; data-sharing on the airport surface; time-based flow management; wake separation and re-categorization; and PBN through the FAA’s Optimization of Airspace in the Metroplex (OAPM) effort.

It catalogued as Tier 1B those priorities that are considered highly beneficial but not as ready for implementation: collaborative air traffic management and decision making; automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast (ADS-B) “out” separation management; data communications for separation management and weather rerouting; and en route PBN. The committee made the distinction to emphasize the need for accelerating Tier 1B capabilities. Tier 1A and 1B capabilities “are equally high priority,” according to RTCA.

At the annual public meeting of the NextGen Institute on September 20 in Washington, D.C., Blakey and other panelists questioned the priority-setting exercise. “We’re going to have to keep in mind when those priorities are accepted or start to be implemented that there is an impact, when you make funding decisions, [on] other parts of NextGen,” said Gerald Dillingham, director of civil aviation with the Government Accountability Office. “If something is taken off the table, that capability may not be able to happen.”

Gene Hayman, L-3 Stratis vice president of space and aviation, said NextGen amounts to a “collection” of capabilities that link together to provide airspace users with operational benefits. “My first concern would be: is the priority list already looking at the interdependencies between some of these capabilities?” he said. Planners should “make sure that Tier 2 and Tier 3 items aren’t forgotten,” he added.